Archive for March 7th, 2007

The Iconostasis and Modern Piety

March 7, 2007


This is meant as a follow-up with more personal reflections to accompany my earlier post on the Iconostasis in Orthodox Churches. I know from my many conversations with bright young seminarians (two of whom are married to my oldest daughters) that there is much, much more to know about the history and development of Eastern liturgical practices than I begin to know, despite my years of reading. But I do know something about piety, particularly the piety found in our modern American experience – and I know my own experiences as well. So this short piece will focus on those things and hopefully shed some useful light.

Some years ago when our mission was first starting, we worshipped in an empty warehouse (quite a small warehouse I might add). There were two icons, Christ and the Theotokos, set up in the front of the room, and a small analoy from which the Reader led the service. We built an altar and set it in place. It was only used by visiting priests – which was about every six weeks at the time.

We discussed building an iconostasis. We decided the easiest thing to do was to build a wall (framed with sheetrock) with three openings. We eventually added doors, etc.

What I most remember was the labor that we put in over the course of a Saturday. By the end of the day the wall was complete, but not painted. We measured and hung the two icons. It was a modest affair, but the impact was huge.

I remember looking at the altar, now seen through the “royal” door space, and thought to myself, “Now it truly seems to be an altar.” What I noticed was that the wall (about the best we could do at the time) did not cut me off from the altar, but instead “revealed” the altar to me. Without the iconostasis it was not obvious what the table was. Now it was clearly an altar, albeit simple and quite makeshift.

Human beings need boundaries – they are inherently part of a healthy life. They “define” things for us. Without them everything becomes confused and without meaning. If you will, the Incarnation itself is God within human boundaries. Christ revealed God fully and truly for the first time. This is one of the main hallmarks of Orthodox dogma on the Holy Icons. We make icons of Christ not because He became man, but because He became “a man.” There is a great deal of difference.

I cannot paint a picture of “humanity.” I’ve seen some bad “publicly funded art” (as my children call it) that seeks to do something like portray “humanity,” but, of course, it always fails. You cannot paint human nature, or any nature. You can only paint a man. St. Theodore the Studite in speaking of this referred to icons as “hypostatic representations,” meaning, images of the person, not the nature. We might use certain symbolic images to point to the nature (such as a halo, etc.), but you cannot paint the nature of someone or thing.

Even in Orthodox Churches that are “minimalist” when it comes to the iconostasis, still have enough definition that you know where the altar is and that it is an altar. There is still a “going in” and a “coming out.” It may be possible to see more, but there is enough definition that the seeing knows what it sees.

I think this is an important matter in modern piety, precisely because we live in a culture where boundaries are being demolished at a fearful pace. I have worshipped (when I was an Anglican) in settings where the altar was in the middle of the Church and everyone surrounded it. I would not criticize this as though it invalidated the actions that took place – but the “democratization” of the liturgy can make the emphasis be on us, the worshippers, rather than on God, the worshipped.

Of course I’m now making an argument based on my own subjectivity, so I’ll readily admit that there’s plenty of room to disagree. But I am certain in my heart, that definition, boundaries, whatever we want to call it, is very important for us today – perhaps even more than at any other time.

It is important for us to know that we cannot have something or someone just because we want it. That God is accessible by invitation and gift, not by right.

I also believe that the boundaries manifest in Orthodox worship are helpful to us in discovering the boundaries that exist within our own souls. I have taught and continue to teach that we human beings are constructed much like a Temple (indeed our bodies are called “Temples” in Scripture). There is a narthex, a most public part of who we are. There is a nave that is less public but still a place where “family” gathers. But there is also a Holy Place, the heart, where we “sup” with God. This is a most intimate place and must not be thrown open to any and all. There is a place within us where we need “to remove” even our own shoes (much less letting others stomp around in there).

Interestingly, and I think this is important as a matter of piety, even as a priest I do not enter and exit the altar area lightly. There is a proper way for a priest to enter the altar and proper ways for him to behave when he is there. This has been personally important for me as I struggle to know God.

Regardless of the evolution of the iconostasis, the prayers in the liturgy are quite clear in their attitude to the altar. There is an “iconostasis” of some form that is encountered in the prayers that a priest says (aloud or quietly depending on parish practice) in which he acknowledges that he stands somewhere he doesn’t deserve to be, and beseeches God to have mercy on all who stand at that table with him. I have been particularly struck in concelebrations with other priests when the prayer asks that “no one around this table be struck with confusion.” I know that the meaning of the prayer has to do with confusion of soul, and yet it also makes me think of my own liturgical confusion as I make my way through the complexities of the service.

Whether we are describing an iconostasis that stretches almost to the ceiling, or nothing more than two icons on easels, the same boundary is being drawn and the same statement being made. One just says it louder than the other. And what it says, I believe, is something I need to hear.